EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Leave it to Eli Manning, the savvy veteran and picture of calmness, to add the perspective to what Saquon Barkley did on Thursday night. Barkley's debut run was dazzling, a 39-yard showcase of patience, smarts, elusiveness, burst and speed. It was everything everyone was expecting from the Giants' super-hyped rookie.
"It was just a run, you know?" Manning said. "Let's not go berserk yet, all right?"
OK. But maybe it's all right to go a little berserk.
Here's the thing about the 21-year-old Barkley: The Giants desperately need that 39-yard run to be a sign of things to come. They need less of his next four carries -- which went for four yards -- and more of the spectacular, chain-moving, crowd-wowing moves. They have to be right about him, that he's a generational talent who can lead the Giants' back into contention.
Because if they're wrong, they may have wasted a chance to set up the franchise for the next 10 years.
Yes, it's an old argument, but it's a risk that isn't going to go away. The Giants took Barkley instead of their next franchise quarterback, which they inarguably needed with Manning at age 37 and entering the final two years of his deal. Their situation was a gift from the football gods. With Manning aging and maybe fading they were sitting with the second pick in a quarterback-rich draft, flush with four players that many thought were absolute franchise-caliber.
They went for a running back instead.
It's hard to argue with Barkley, whom Giants GM Dave Gettleman famously said was "touched by the hand of God." He is widely considered to be a near-perfect prospect, as can't-miss as anyone can be in the NFL.
But it was still a short-term pick. The Giants punted on protecting their long-term future so they could gamble that Manning, with Barkley behind him and Odell Beckham Jr. at his side, had enough for one last run at a third championship ring. Despite what happened the last two years, Gettleman and new coach Pat Shurmur are banking on Manning having "years" left at a near-elite level.
What if they're wrong? That's why they need Barkley to be an immediate superstar. They need him to be the kind of player who can carry this offense, even if the quarterback struggles. Because if Manning is really in decline, the Giants don't have an answer for that. His backup, Davis Webb, is far from a lost cause, but his shaky performance in the preseason opener against the Browns on Friday night -- 9 for 22 for 70 yards, in part because he was "a little amped up" according to Shurmur -- certainly proved he's not ready. And obviously neither is Kyle Lauletta, the rookie out of tiny Richmond who was making his NFL debut (6 of 9, 48 yards)
The idea that Webb, a third-rounder, or Lauletta, a fourth-rounder, can be a championship-level quarterback is a longshot anyway. Mid-round quarterbacks have a low success rate. That's the reason there's always a run on the real good quarterbacks at the top of drafts. And this year there were several that caught the NFL's attention, including Cleveland's Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, the new savior for the Jets.
The Giants were in love with Barkley, though, and didn't seem to have an organizational consensus on which quarterback they preferred, according to team sources. Without a conviction, they went with the player everyone loved, possibly at the expense of a major future need.
So again: What if they're wrong? If Barkley can't help them rebound from 3-13 and make a run in the next two years, it's easy to envision the Giants without an adequate successor to Manning in 2020. And as the Jets have proven over the years, the search for a franchise quarterback can be agonizingly long. If that happens, the Giants will end up doing what seems impossible: wasting the best years of Beckham and Barkley, potentially two of the best weapons in the league.
That's a lot of ifs, though. And of course, if Barkley is the star everyone is expecting and the Giants can vault into contention, the choice will have been worth it and the Giants will have been proven right. That's why that run was so exciting, so tantalizing, so hopeful.
That's why it's OK to go a little berserk.
"That's what you want to see," defensive end Olivier Vernon said. "They brought him here to be that horse in the backfield and make plays. He's been doing that at the collegiate level and now in the big-boy level. … I'm excited to see what the season has in store for him.
"I'm going to be a fan watching him just like everybody else."